Knowing full well what a cut engine in an unpaved lot at the end of a long car ride portends, Mamie had burst from the back of the car the second I popped open the rear window. Darting into and then immediately back out of the woods, she gave me a distrustful glance as she jogged to the other side of the lot to privately investigate the treasure she had excavated from the moldering leaves.
Following her and having a look myself, I couldn't decide if this skull and its Mamie-detached mandible were good or bad omens.
We were in Buzzards country after all.
Omens or not, dawn had broken, the sun was rising up off the eastern horizon, and all of Stony Valley invited adventuring from its roost just on the other side of Second Mountain at whose base we sat gawking from the valley of Fishing Creek. It was time to lace up the shoes and get lost (or what felt like lost) for a few hours.
Neither Brian or I have ever run the full Buzzards Marathon course, weren't even sure we knew what trails or sequence of turns made up the course (which is to say, more truthfully, we were sure we didn't know), but we were certain that we were departing from the official, ahem, unofficial starting point of the infamous race that never was.
For those of you who are wondering what the hell I'm talking about, there isn't much I can tell you since the race really doesn't, perhaps never really did, exist.
Or did it?
Hard to say, but if you're curious (as I was and still am), here's a link that will let you draw your own conclusions: Fact or Fiction? Lore of the Buzzards
As a quick aside, I believe I may have found the man who can tell me all there is to know (or not know), but my instincts suggest he may not give me straight answers, especially if I propose to write a definitive history of this near-mythical non-event. Musings for another day and a different blog post.
Almost as soon as we stepped from the parking lot, our route began a steady climb of 700 some feet over about a mile and half. The familiar yellow blazes of the Horse-Shoe Trail welcomed us early in the climb and I was reminded of coming the opposite direction on this same trail a few years ago when I had traveled the first 34+ miles of the trail on a long birthday run. Going the opposite way and with the passing of even just a few years, I didn't recognize a thing, but that hardly mattered as we fell into a steady rhythm of movement and conversation. We quickly reached the top of Second Mountain where the early morning sun cast long shadows and Brian and I gestured from one ridge to another, commenting on prior explorations.
Leaving the summit, we began a brisk downhill plunge that followed the straight arrow of an aging pipeline before hanging a sharp right to follow the Horse-Shoe Trail as it descended the ridge in more rolling fashion for the next 3 miles. I did recognize this section of the trail and, as was the case on my first visit, I couldn't get over how long it seemed to take to cover that distance despite the fact that we were actually chugging along at a pretty healthy pace.
We had noticed fairly fresh bear scat near the top of Second Mountain and when Mamie crouched down into a defensive position and raised hackles I'd never seen her raise before, I was pretty sure we were about to get an up-close look at an Ursus americanus.
I don't possess any inherent fear of Pennsylvania's black bears, but, all the same, encounters remain fairly rare and the possibility of one definitely arouses a little adrenaline.
No such encounter materialized, however, and the at-attention stance of the hackles relaxed, signalling an end of our immediate concerns and allowing the adrenaline to seep away.
Down, down, down we continued before finally crossing the bridge over Stony Creek and then banking left to log a mile or so of rail trail on our way to the Water Tank Trail.
I wrote about the Water Tank Trail less than a month ago and, as it turns out, it isn't any less punishing in broad daylight than it is at night. It was nice, though, to get on it this time without having first beaten up the legs with miles of self-correcting demanding ice, as was the case back in March, so it actually was a bit more manageable this go round.
Manageable is certainly a relative term and the rocks, downed limbs and steep grade still made for slow going and the rushing water of natural springs and winter run-off made for nice photo ops/chances to slow the pulse along the way. Brian and Mamie began putting some time on me, but both were kind and patient enough to wait on me every now and then.
Rather than making the entire climb up Stony Mountain on the Water Tank Trail, we took a right-hand turn about a third of the way up the slope, following a trail dubbed Marcia's Madness and its orange blazes the rest of the way up the ridge. Rumors would have us believe that this was true to the Buzzards course, but who can say?
Together, those two trails took us from the valley floor at roughly 180 feet to 1266 feet on the plateaued top of Stony Mountain in about a mile and a half. To keep even the finickiest of masochists happy, they also threw in a healthy dose of rocks and roots in case the severity of the slope wasn't enough to render actual running a near impossibility.
Making yet another right hand turn, this time on to the Rattling Run Trail, we settled into one of the few real breaks of the day, a grassy track running north and east across the ridge top for a mile to a mile-and-a-half.
Red blazes to our left announced that we'd reached the H. Knauber Trail, our shortcut down to the Appalachian Trail below on the northern side of Stony Mountain. No more than 100 yards onto the trail, we crossed paths with a hiker just about to top out on his way up from where we were headed. The temperatures were maybe in the mid-60's but, despite looking strong and moving solidly (maybe because of this), the guy was sweating like it was a mid-summer 100 degrees with humidity to match. After we put a little distance between ourselves and the hiker, I made mention of this to Brian and silently felt fortunate that we were going down rather than up.
Suffice to say, every drop of sweat staining that adventurous soul's shirt was hard-earned. The descent of the H. Knauber Trail was a full-on screamer with big, deep in-cut steps and technical terrain the entire way. By my Suunto's account, it gave away almost exactly a 1000 feet of elevation in 8 tenths of a mile. By the time we reached the trail marker at the junction of the A.T., we were 10.5 miles into our day and my quads were well aware of the work we'd already done (and trying to ignore what might be left). All I could think of was what that other guy had tackled by traveling the opposite direction.
We swung west (left) on the Appalachian Trail and continued to wind our way down into Clark's Valley, a section with which I was more familiar, having been on that stretch of trail several times before. Once we reached the bottom of the valley, we peeled away from the A.T. on a blue-blazed, new-to-me trail and began slowly working our way back up the ridge we'd just descended.
The sun continued to inch higher in the sky and the temperatures climbed too, marking the first real warmth of Spring. Our gradual ascending wasn't too taxing but I was beginning to want for calories, actual food to accompany the electrolytes that I had been doing a fairly good job of consuming along the way. We walked for a bit while I tried to choke down a Snickers but, finding my always cranky stomach to be rather disinterested, I put the half-eaten candy bar away, knocked back a couple of salt tabs, and returned to running.
Soon thereafter, our route, having grown impatient I guess with the slow climbing, turned sharply left and started beelining for the top of Stony. And, just like that, we were off on another 1000-ish foot climb squished into just over a mile. Brian machined his way up the ridge with Mamie in tow while I trudged from behind in not-so-hot pursuit.
I may have imagined it, but I believe somewhere along that ascent, a small box was handed to me inside of which I found my own pathetic, beaten, scrawny ass, a humbling gift to receive, I'll have you know.
The top of the mountain did finally arrive, as it always does. Or, to put it another way, I did finally arrive at the top of the mountain, as I sometimes do. Even with beaten ass in hand, I was smiling. My friends were waiting, the surroundings were beautiful, and the weather was absolutely perfect. None of these things made me not-tired or any more filled with energy, but, all the same, they were there waiting and I was grateful.
We were back on the Rattling Run Trail, this time heading west instead of east but I was no longer cruising along the smooth, grassy double-track. Not hardly.
I gulped down water, downed another salt tablet, and plugged away (this is an ego-protecting alternative phrase for walking) with knowledge of the long, gravity-promising descent of Rattling Run Road just a mile or two ahead. That promise pulled me like a tractor beam. Yep, like a slow, but persistent tractor...sputtering...in first gear...but, still, you know, persisting.
We made far better time on the meandering 3 mile drop that is Rattling Run Road and were rewarded with a view of the two miles of right-straight-up-the-mountain-and-damn-your-switchbacks pipeline that we'd need to cover to top out one last time on Second Mountain.
But not so fast. The pipeline would disappear from view before we got started. There was a creek that needed crossing and it was running high, knee-high at some parts, scrotum-high at others.
Brian made quick work of the crossing, squealing and screeching, perhaps involuntarily from the effects of 50 degree water on vulnerable parts of the anatomy. Or maybe he just likes to squeal and screech. Again, who can say?
Mamie had a good long look at the situation and even without the same anatomical concerns as her companions, she still wanted no parts of our fording. She doesn't mind water actually or mud or any type of questionable footing, but she is resolute in her wanting to be able to touch bottom and Stony Creek wasn't offering that luxury at the moment.
There's nothing quite like hucking a nervous 50-pound dog across a swollen creek on fatigued legs and a queasy stomach while your nuts shrivel up so tight they feel like they might burst.
We made it to the other side and I'm happy to report that Mamie couldn't have been any more dry. Whew.
And then it was time for that pipeline. I mean, then it was time for trudging through some of the thickest muck this side of the Everglades and THEN it was time for that pipeline.
Brian cheerfully said something about running up it and off he went.
I watched him and Mamie go. Watched them for a good 10 seconds. Then I got down on all fours and vomited.
Once the spasms passed and I got back on two legs, I looked back the direction they'd gone and they were...um...gone. Somehow I could see the whole way to the top of the mountain but couldn't see them. I'd been man-downed for a few minutes, but they weren't that fast, not by that point in the day anyway. A hundred 100 yards away or half a mile, the point is they were long gone and I needed to start moving that way too.
Surprisingly, my legs weren't completely shot and I was still able to power hike which, while not as effective as running, is a whole lot faster in getting up a climb than walking, sitting or lying prone beside a puddle of your own puke.
Again, trust me.
It took a bit longer than I might have liked, but eventually I reached the intersection where earlier in the day the Horse-Shoe Trail had chosen a different compass setting.
I still had a good bit of ascending left to do, but I was getting there. I vividly recalled the last time I'd come this direction and how brutal the climb had been from that point to the very top of the ridge. I also, fortunately, remembered that there is one distinct false summit about 100-150 yards from the true top of Second Mountain.
Moments after mentally patting myself on the back for remembering that fact and avoiding the psychological letdown I might have experienced if I hadn't remembered, I found myself throwing up again. True to my ridiculous form, it wasn't the kind of puking that produces any output, since my stomach had already been wrung dry. Instead it was just a bout of spasms, a painful going-through-the-motions until my body accepted the fact that there wasn't anything else to evacuate.
Whether as a defense mechanism or some other character flaw, I always seem to find myself laughing after these episodes. Perhaps it falls into the "might as well laugh about it" category and as stupid as that sounds as I type this, yes, you might as well.
So, topping out and discovering Brian and Mamie basking in the sun like two trail running pin-ups, I found myself laughing and happy, like always, to be out in the woods, among friends and still in possession of my flawed body and tenacious spirit.
"It's all downhill from here" is a dreaded cliche in ultrarunning, almost never true, but in this case it really was. Less than 2 miles later, we were back in the parking lot, reflecting on the preceding hours.
Mamie humored me, as she always generously does, posing for an archival photo of the day's journey.
While I don't always bother to summon all the powers of my GPS, I decided to see what its charts had to report on our wandering and learned that we'd put in nearly 4400 feet of climbing and almost 21 miles. My legs, like their owner, aren't very good at math, but they definitely concurred that work had been done.
Seems a full-blown Buzzards might have added my sun-bleached bones to those that Mamie had scrounged up earlier in the day.
Only one way to find out.
I can't wait.